Drummers and dancers wowed fans at South Africa's Soccer City stadium in a glittering prelude to Friday's World Cup kickoff, but Nelson Mandela's absence after a family tragedy cast a cloud over the party.
Mandela's granddaughter Zenani died in a car crash on the way home from a pre-World Cup concert, forcing the beloved 91-year-old father of post-apartheid South Africa to cancel his attendance at the opening ceremony in the Johannesburg stadium.
The hosts were kicking off the tournament against Mexico at 1400 GMT at the stadium on the outskirts of the huge township of Soweto, a centre of the anti-apartheid struggle.
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Zenani, 13, was one of the nine great-grandchildren of Mandela, whose charisma and prestige is credited with helping South Africa win the World Cup bid in 2004.
"South Africans and people all over the world will stand in solidarity with Mr Mandela and his family in the aftermath of this tragedy," the former president's foundation said.
The death cast a shadow over the unprecedented excitement in South Africa, which was tormented for years by negative and even domestic pessimism that the world's most watched sporting event was too big for Africa to handle.
That pessimism has been transformed in recent weeks and South Africans of all races could scarcely contain their pride at being in the world spotlight.
"We have been waiting for years for this moment, praying that it would happen," said local fan Nicolas Sello, 54. He came to Soccer City at dawn a full 10 hours before kickoff wearing a specially-tailored shirt resembling the national flag.
With the nation waking up to the sound of local vuvuzela trumpets, all eyes turned to Soccer City in the afternoon for the opening ceremony and first match.
Jets roared overhead and hundreds of performers showed off local music and dance in the stadium shaped like a calabash or local cooking pot. A giant model dung beetle rolled a ball across the turf.
Traffic jams and huge queues outside the stadium slowed many fans from getting inside -- long a concern of organizers --but it was filling up in time for the kickoff. .
South Africa's anti-apartheid hero Desmond Tutu, who has said the World Cup will have as big an impact for blacks as the election of U.S. President Barack Obama, danced ecstatically wearing the scarf of the local Bafana Bafana (The Boys) team.
They arrived jiving and smiling for their match against Mexico while the foreign side looked serious and pensive as they entered the huge Soccer City cauldron to a deafening blare from the biggest array yet of vuvuzelas.
The opening match is followed by a clash in Cape Town between Uruguay and France.
Pumping up the atmosphere, scores of Mexican fans dressed as mariachi singers in wide-brimmed hats joked with the South Africans at Soccer City, vowing to ruin their big day.
While Obama was not present, his vice-president Joe Biden did make the trip to the envy of his boss. "The president is angry," said Biden. Obama is at home handling the BP oil spill crisis.
One man ruing his absence was the head of Rwanda's football federation -- he was ordered home and arrested for trying to attend the World Cup without permission from military superiors.
"That is insubordination," an army spokesman said of errant Brigadier General Jean Bosco Kazura.
Successfully hosting this tournament for the first time in Africa will mean much more for the hosts than just sport.
Racial reconciliation, the affirmation of an often troubled post-apartheid nation, future investment and millions of tourist dollars could be at stake.
It is also a symbol of Africa's emergence from decades stereotyped as a continent of disaster, conflict and failure into a dynamic region winning ever-more foreign investment.
At Soccer City, the Mexicans have to contend not only with a frenzy of patriotic fervour but also the ear-splitting din of the vuvuzela trumpets, so loud they can make communication between players and coaches almost impossible.
Once mocked even by their compatriots as hopeless under-achievers, and still one of the lowest-rated World Cup hosts, at 83rd in the rankings, South Africa come off a run of 12 unbeaten matches and are new national idols.
A string of comparatively minor crimes against journalists and three Greek players in recent days have highlighted risks in one of the globe's most violent countries outside a war zone.
Six people were injured in a crowd crush at Cape Town's main World Cup fan zone on Thursday when thousands tried to get in.
The death of Mandela's great grand-daughter, a day after three British tourists died in a bus crash, highlighted the fact visitors face as much danger on the roads as from crime.
In Friday's other Group A game, France will be under pressure against Uruguay in Cape Town after unimpressive warm-up games, culminating in a worrying 1-0 defeat by China.
Les Bleus look a far cry from the dominant team that won the World Cup in 1998 and Euro 2000. Uruguay, though unfancied, have had impressive wins against Switzerland and Israel.
With no team outside Europe and South American ever having won a World Cup, Spain are the bookies' favourite, while Brazil are the fans' choice according to a new poll.